Thursday, December 08, 2005

The day the music died

There is a Wendy Cope poem that I absolutely adore. Actually, there are many Wendy Cope poems that I adore, but one is particularly relevant today. It’s called “Two Cures For Love” and goes like this:

Two Cures for Love

1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2. The easy way: get to know him better.

I like Cope’s work because it is unpretentious and witty and manages to convey in a few short lines what we lesser mortals would take reams of space to explain. All the disappointment of dating, the let down of discovering the ‘real person’ as opposed the original ideal we had in our head, is succinctly expressed in two brief lines.

Every woman who’s ever been dumped can instantly identify with Cope’s “Going Too Far”, another of my favourites.

Going Too Far

Cuddling the new telephone directory
After I found your name in it
Was going too far.

It’s a safe bet you’re not hugging a phone book,
Wherever you are.

Brilliant. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it. Not hugging the phone book, necessarily, but lingering over a failed relationship long after it’s dead and buried when we should have marched on to pastures new. See, that took me a ridiculously long-winded sentence, complete with two metaphors and an opening qualification, while Cope successfully describes the whole scenario in a few short lines. Genius.

L, a friend of mine with an English literature degree, has tried to convince me that Cope’s poems are really little more than clever wisecracks. Maybe so. But as I told L, the line between clever wisecrack and pithy epigram is a fine one. Maybe it’s a girl thing? Cope certainly manages to describe the inner workings of the female mind (particularly the single female mind) with frightening accuracy. And, in just a few short lines, she is able to reduce me to uncontrollable laughter or tears so, despite L’s misgivings, Wendy Cope’s place in my top-five poets of all time is pretty much secure. (I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know enough poets to have a top-ten list, so top-five will have to do).

I have digressed wildly off the point. The thing is that I have been thinking about “Two Cures for Love” a lot this week, and especially today. On Saturday night, in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Radio 4 aired “The Wenner Tapes”, an extensive interview that John Lennon gave to Jann Wenner in New York in 1970. The interview was the basis of a Rolling Stone article that year, but has never before been broadcast in the UK. It was an eye opener, to say the least.

Much has been said and written about John Lennon over the past 25 years. Most of it ridiculously over the top, to the point of idol worship. I was never one to believe that he was a saint or a hero or a prophetic genius. But I was a bloody big fan. I spent most of my formative years listening to the Beatles and trying to convince my school friends that they really were better than Wham and Duran Duran (at least I had the last laugh there.) There are Lennon lyrics that never fail to move me. “Beautiful Boy”, “In My Life” and “Across the Universe” still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I can’t listen to “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” without smiling and thinking of H, or “Girl” without waiting expectantly for the heavy intake of breath at the end of the first chorus, and yet being surprised by it at the same time. And I defy anyone to listen to “Help!” or “I’m a Loser” without feeling some of Lennon’s pain and despair.

So, without overplaying the point (apart from one year when I lit a yizkor candle with my school friend Jayne in the girl’s toilets and got sent to the headmaster’s office – a fire hazard, apparently) John Lennon has been a constant feature in my life and I have always silently marked the 8th December as the day that he died. I know that the man wasn’t a saint or a working class hero (he wasn’t even working class) but he did write some great songs that have made me laugh and cry and think for almost 30 years and, on the day that he died, I always think of him.

But this year, Cope’s warning that getting to know a man better might well cure you of love has proved prophetic. The Wenner interview exposed a man who was clearly neither saint nor hero. In fact, rather disappointingly for this die hard fan, he was the very opposite. Lennon came across as a self-opinionated, self-important, vindictive, jealous git. He admitted to being convinced of his own genius from a young age, spoke about the other Beatles like they were dirt on his shoe (“I carried George. He’s an average guitarist at best”) and criticised Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger as old hat and an imitator, respectively. He even suggested that the only positive memory he has of the early years, touring with the Beatles, were the freely available “groupies and whores” who used to visit their hotel room.

Previously, I had been naively prepared to overlook his anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic remarks as a sign of the age in which he lived, but I can’t square those feelings any more. In short, a man I had admired and respected for years turns out to have been a thoroughly unpleasant individual.

And yet. And yet. He gave me (not personally, obviously, but when I listen to his songs I can’t help feeling that he is singing just to me) some of the most constant and enduring songs of my life. His voice is still raw and alive when he sings “Mr Moonlight” and to this day, whenever I can’t sleep, I listen to the second side of Abbey Road and it calms me down and shuts out the dark silence like no other music ever can.

And so, today, 25 years after he was shot, I find myself, for the first time, with very mixed emotions. I can’t say that my admiration or respect for him is as strong as it was. He was more than merely ‘flawed’, as some commentators have written in the press today. He was clearly a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But he was also a gifted artist, a talented musician and a brilliant lyricist. And I know that, in spite of it all, I will continue to listen to his music when the mood dictates. Getting to know him better has not cured me of my ‘love’ for John Lennon, but it has certainly tainted it somewhat. “The dream is over” he once sang. Now it’s time to see the man for who and what he really was. And maybe, knowing what I know now, I can grow to love him more realistically, warts and all.


Blogger Elster said...

As it is with all famous people in popular culture, you have to separate their "art" with who they really are. I used to love Mel Gibson movies, but his crazyness, anti semitic father and general loony-ness have made him unwatchable. But he is a special sort. genrally, I don't really care whatan actor or musician thinks. what makes thir opinion more importnant than anyone else's?

As for Lennon: The man was unbelieveably talented. The Beatles were my first music love and opened the door for everything that followed. Yes, none of them were great muscicians per say (in my opinion, John himself was an average player at best), but the music, the lyrics and the voices all came togwther and made something once in a life time.

In fact, I think you have inspired me to post something on my own blog. So thanks.

7:26 pm  
Blogger baldricka said...

I also love Wendy Cope. Do you know Judy Rose? She wrote a great collection of poems called "Mummy said the B word."

7:30 pm  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

I share your mixed emotions on John Lennon - a brilliant artist whose songs I enjoy immensely and a very unpleasant person at the same time. How to reconcile the two? Can there even be a reconciliation? Should there be? I wrestle with it. I am someone who would not listen to Phil Collins after learning he was a PLO supporter (before they were considered a "peace partner") and will not watch a Mel Gibson film after reading some of his comments in the press. And yet, John Lennon is different. Perhaps it is because my connection was to the music only and not the man that I can separate the two so seemlessly. I first heard his songs as a child, and loved the songs for themselves. I did not really know nor care who sang them. Growing up with Collins and Gibson, however, meant that I viewed their output as "Phil Collins music" or a "Mel Gibson film". Had Lennon lived and continued to put out music, I may have had to stop listening to him. Maybe I still should...or maybe once a work of art is created it takes on a life of its own and becomes the audience's to claim and recontextualize....just a few thoughts...

On another note, who are the other four in your top 5 poets of all time?

11:14 pm  
Anonymous Plony said...

Watching the programme on Mark Chapman last night, I couldn't help wondering what he would be doing now. Would he be a Geldof/ Bono - angry and irritating but making a difference, or a Paul McCartney - reduced to mediocrity by seeming stuck in the past. (There I go - being judgemental again!).

9:56 am  
Blogger R.x said...

elster - thanks for the comments. and i'm glad it inspired you to write about lennon too. i hear what you say about separating the artist from the man. tho it can be almost impossible at times. how far do we take it? are we going to rehabilitate wagner, for example?

baldricka - always good to find another wendy cope fan. i haven't read any judy rose (doesn't she write the cookery column in the JC?) but i'll check her out now.

mc - i think you're right - it does make a difference when you 'grow up' with someone and have a certain view of that individual which is then shattered later on. i suppose because we were so young when lennon died we've always had the whole picture which does make it easier to separate the artist from the man. but my question to elster re. wagner still stands. any thoughts?

plony - it's a good job i love you so much - not many would get away with calling McCartney mediocre - (he is a little bit, though, to be fair)

mc - my other four top poets - there's a full blog posting in that question and answer - i think my list would be roger mcgough, wendy cope, yehuda amichai, liz lochead and (can i get away with this?) lennon/mccartney. will explain why another time...

1:11 pm  
Blogger Elster said...

rx - There is a difference between a bad man who created things within the art/music/literature and a BAD MAN who does the same. Wagner was a BAD MAN.

Lennon, though, was at worst a bad man. And let's face it, if you walked around all day to millions of peole who called you genious and brilliant, etc - it would affect you too. Look what it did to Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise. It made them mad.

Plony - Harsh on Bono and Geldorf. Maybe they are a bit overzealous but you have to commend them for using their fame forgood.

2:56 pm  
Anonymous G from 143 said...

I have been a Beatles fan, and subsequently a John Lennon fan for longer than I remember. Indeed, I have to rely on a diary my father kept in order to verify that in 1964, at the age of 2, I would sit in front of the television singing "Yeah Yeah Yeah" and shaking my head around, every time the Beatles were on.

16 years later, on the day that John Lennon was shot, I organised a vigil at the Machon in Kiryat Moriah, Jerusalem where I was working at the time, hastily compiling a cassette tape of some of his finest songs. It was a very emotionally charged poignant affair, and even if I had been aware that John was a "bad man" I don't think I would have done things differently. He was a symbol to an entire generation, a brilliant and outspoken songwriter, did not succumb to commercialism, and in the last five years of his life was an admirable and dedicated family man.

On the subject of that other "BAD MAN" Wagner, I have a serious dilemna, because as a producer of classical and contemporary music recordings, I can not discount his vast contribution to the development of modern music, no matter how Jewish I am. Although we may never know this for certain, it is possible that without Wagner, music may not have evolved the way it did to give us The Beatles.

Some food for thought...

BTW I still have that compilation somewhere, r.x if you're interested to know what the playlist was.

G from 143

7:42 pm  
Blogger MC Aryeh said...

Look forward to the future elaborate favorite poets post. Your question re: Wagner is an excellent one. I am not sure I have an answer. There is a side of me that feels once the work of art is finished it stands on its own, apart from its creator. If the work itself is not inherently evil, you ought to be able to separate it from the man, be it Wagner or even Hitler, yemach shemo, especially if they or their estates do not profit from it in any way. On the other hand, knowing who created the works, there is also a side to say purchasing them or becoming familiar with them lends their creators tacit approval. My gut says the work is tainted - but that is a feeling. I don't think I could bring myself to view Hitler's paintings, and certainly never purchase one. And of course, there are gradations. Lennon was not a Hitler, or even a Wagner or a Lindberg.

7:48 pm  
Blogger tafka PP said...

Just back to Wendy Cope- love her too. And won't hear a bad word said against her!

7:50 am  
Anonymous Plony said...

Elster - actually agree with you re Bono and Geldof. They care about an issue and use their profile to make a difference and they take the time to really know their subject, rather than just mouthing off randomly like alot of other celebrities on the issue of the week!

Angry is actually how Geldof describes himself - ie that is what motivates him. Irritating is just an unfortunate side effect of that kind of passion!

Rx - realised I was pushing my luck with the mediocre comment. just testing the bounds of friendship!

9:58 am  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...


I never really liked the Beatles or John Lennon till a friend introduced me to the song "Here Comes the Sun" along, long time ago in Israel.

Great blog; glad I found it.

7:17 am  
Blogger R.x said...

hi jameel - welcome to suburbanhymns. i'm glad a friend introduced you to the beatles. Here Comes the Sun is a great track, and was written by George Harrison (my favourite of the four).

Plony - i agree 100% about Geldof -he's like an old testament prophet - angry and raging against injustice - i wrote about it somewhere on the blog but i forget where (i must admit though that Bono irritates me to the point of violence).

Parrot - another Cope fan. excellent. maybe we should set up a wendy cope blog?

G of 123 - i'll have to hear that compilation some time. once i get over the fact that you were 2 in 1964...

9:55 am  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

RX: I owe the purple parrot for finding this blog as well.

I totally forgot that George wrote "Here comes the Sun", then again, what do you expect from a dorky expat American anyway?

11:26 am  
Blogger Beowolf said...

How can you love the perfection of the dance and find fault in the dancer? The dancer is the dance, the dance is the dancer.

Why don’t you take your criticism and doubt one step further and join the chosen ones who lay hands upon Albert Goldman’s book: ‘The Lives of John Lennon’?
You’ll find no anti-Semitism therein; in fact you will discover how Johnny made passionate love to Brian Epstein’s bottom in exchange for fame and fortune in a music business heavily controlled by Jewish interests.
You’ll find no accusations of homophobia, instead claims of documented trysts that Lennon procured with Thai fags.

Hey, you can even put your sentimental recollections of his music to bed as Goldman claimed Lennon stole his music from other popular tunes of the day disguising them to avoid detection by less observant minds than Goldman’s.

Ahhhh, if only Lennon had been Jewish, his memory would have been beyond reproach like Einstein’s who is endeared in spite of inventing the atomic bomb with which he suggested to the US president could end the war when his vastly superior intelligence must have been aware of the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilian women and children whose lives would be sacrificed in the stead of US soldier’s.

Love the creation? Love the creator!

9:26 am  
Blogger Beowolf said...

I prefer John Lennon's version of 'War is Over' than Einstein's.

9:40 am  

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